Sept. 21, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– In many ways, tennis is an individual sport played within the framework of a team. But, as Jaime Wong learned, embracing the team concept can change everything.
Wong came to Georgia Tech in 2000 determined to follow the road to individual tennis glory. Four years later she left a changed woman, one dedicated to team.
“All my life tennis had been an individual sport until I was in Georgia Tech and experienced the joy of being part of a team,” said the 34-year-old native of Singapore, who is her nation’s youngest national champion, winning the title at age 12. “We trained together, studied together, ate together, slept together, laughed together, cried together. `There is no I in team’ was written in our locker room. We had a truly wonderful coach, Bryan Shelton, who fathered us as children of an extended family.
“My ambition before coming to Georgia Tech was to play professional tennis,” Wong added. “But after being part of a wonderful team, I found that I had begun to play for my team and not for myself.”
That change of heart proved mutually beneficial.
Team-wise, the Yellow Jackets made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 2000, the year Wong and Shelton arrived, beginning the current run of 17 consecutive appearances.
Individually Wong was three-time first-team All-ACC (2000, 2001, 2003) and earned back-to-back NCAA singles championships appearances (2002, 2003) — the first such Jacket to play singles in the NCAA Championships.
On Oct. 14, Jaime will receive recognition from Georgia Tech with her induction into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame as part of an immensely talented class of eight. She will join football legend Calvin Johnson, basketball great and current Atlanta Hawk guard Jarrett Jack, baseball All-Americans Eric Patterson, and Michael Sorrow, golf star and current PGA Tour player Nicholas Thompson, and track and field All-Americans Lynn Houston Moore and Brendon Mahoney.
“I’m a little embarrassed to say I didn’t know there was such a thing as the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame,” said Wong, the third member of the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team and second player to be inducted (Kim Lash, Class of 1992, is the other player) and the program’s first inductee since 1997, when Coach Julie Wrege was enshrined. “Then it was like, `I’m really not sure why they would choose me. There has to be so many other more worthy candidates from the Georgia Tech tennis team!’ I definitely never expected [induction]. I still don’t think I am Hall of Fame `material.’ I didn’t play tennis for the records or to be recognized. I only ever wanted to win and to win for Georgia Tech, and I played to win, because I hated to lose.”
Bryan Shelton, Georgia Tech women’s tennis head coach from 2000 — coincidentally Wong’s first season — through 2012 and currently men’s tennis coach at the University of Florida, feels she is more than qualified for the Hall.
“What a great honor that is so well deserved,” said Shelton. “Jaime Wong competed at the highest level and brought a skill set that most college players don’t possess. I am really happy that Jaime is being recognized for her achievements. I often said that Jamie made the most of her college experience and grew exponentially as a person.
“I think about her competitive spirit and her refusal to lose when it came to the team result,” he added. “I also think about how clever she was as a player and her ability to solve problems on the court. Her style was unique, because she didn’t hit the ball hard but her precision and mental toughness was legendary.”
Wong proved a solid player right away, going 18-4 in dual meets (the 18 wins a team-high), 25-12 overall at No. 4 singles as a freshman, and, with fellow freshman Mysti Morris, putting up a 13-7 record in dual meets, 22-13 overall. The Jackets started out 8-1 and, despite playing a brutal schedule that included 14 matches against teams ranked in the top 60, finished 14-8 (4-4 within the conference). They even upset No. 19 Florida State in Tallahassee, with Wong playing a key role, by winning her singles match and, with Morris, clinching the doubles point. Wong would win the singles championship at that year’s ACC Tournament and help the Jackets, who finished No. 29 overall, qualify for the program’s inaugural NCAA Tournament.
“I just wanted to win because I hated losing,” she said. “I was very happy playing at No. 4 in the lineup, because I was winning practically every match. Unlike other players on the team vying to play at a higher position in our lineup, I actually requested for Coach Shelton to keep me at No. 4. Winning mattered more to me. Coach Shelton kept me at No.4 my first year but eventually began to push me to step up to play higher in the lineup.”
The following year she stepped up her game, winning a team-best 30 singles matches, tying the school single-season record, and a team-high 19 W’s in doubles. She became only the second Jacket to earn All-ACC honors in consecutive seasons.
As a junior, Shelton continued pushing and Wong continued responding, moving up in the lineup and having the defining season of her career.
She never played below No. 1 (1-6), 2 (10-3) or 3 (1-0), and while her winning percentage took something of a hit (.571) she showed growth while continuing her utter disdain for losing.
That was never more clear than on March 5 at No. 44 San Diego State with the match on the line. against SDSU’s Lindsay Hedberg. Wong dropped the first set, 6-4, then evened the match by winning the second set, 6-4. The entire match came down to the third set.
The heat of the moment resulted in her momentarily boiling over but led to a life-changing moment.
“Midway through the match I was struggling and began whining and complaining about how I couldn’t play tennis, and nothing I did was working, and I should just quit playing tennis because `I [stink],'” she recalled. “Coach Shelton tried to encourage me, but I rebutted everything he said. Finally he stood up and said “Fine! You want to quit? Go ahead. But take a look around you,” and he walked away.
“That’s when I saw how hard all my teammates were fighting out on court, and there I was being so selfish to want to quit because I was having a bad day! I dug in and tried to just stay in the match as long as I could,” she continued. “As it turned out, my match became the deciding one. I ended up saving two match points and won the match with a serve and volley — I had to dive to reach the volley, and the ball tipped my racket and dropped across the net onto my opponent’s court, and she could not retrieve it. Before I could even get up to shake my opponent’s hand, my whole team had jumped over the fence and swarmed me and hugged me and we were all just celebrating. That’s what stands out to me at Georgia Tech. I learned what it means to be part of a team.”
Shelton recalls it a little differently but wasn’t surprised by her resolve.
“I just remember that we were lucky that it came down to her,” he said. “She is the one who was willing to suffer longer and only take calculated risks when the match was on the line. There were many matches like that one where Jaime dug deeper than anyone I’ve ever coached.”
She would play the final five matches of that season at No. 1, winning both of her matches in the NCAA Tournament and cap her year, one in which she knocked off six ranked opponents, with the program’s first berth in the NCAA Singles Championships.
As a senior, she finished her career strong, winning 25 singles matches and 22 doubles matches, again earning All-ACC honors and a berth in the NCAA Championships.
For her career, Jaime never won fewer than 21 singles matches and 19 in doubles in a season.
She left Georgia Tech with a school-record 101 singles wins and 82 in doubles — she still ranks fifth in both. Her career .687 singles winning percentage ranks seventh in program history and her .719 (23-9) as a senior, ranks 11th.
Those numbers make a nice footnote, but little more.
“Looking back, it was not my winning percentage that was special to me,” she said. “It was the team and experience with the team. Knowing now that my wins and winning percentage contributed to the success of my team that I loved, that’s what makes it special.”
Wong’s success wasn’t limited to the court, as put the same determination into her studies that she did in winning. She’d prove as decorated, earning the Bobby Dodd Scholarship in 2002, and the ACC Weaver-James-Corrigan Postgraduate Scholarship and the Georgia Tech Total Person Award in 2003.
“During my time at Georgia Tech, after being part of a wonderful team, I found that I had begun to play for my team and not for myself,” she said. “That’s when I realized that I no longer desired to play professional tennis and as such, excelling in academics became my top priority. I was a student-athlete, which made me a student before an athlete.”
After graduation, she returned to Singapore and joined the work force. But tennis was still in her blood, as was her wanting to give back. So in 2010, she took a part-time job coaching tennis. It wasn’t long before she was named head coach of Ignite Tennis Academy, where she’s still coaching.
Shelton is proud of his pupil and how she’s navigated her journey since arriving at the Flats.
“Jaime changed so much emotionally as a person during her time at Georgia Tech,” he said. “She started out not saying a lot her first year and then became one of the funniest, most outgoing players on the team. From what I thought was an introvert to someone who started acting on stage and also leading in the locker room and on the court. She became like a third coach with her knowledge of the game.
“She has continued to grow even more since she graduated,” he added. “She has learned how to put others first which is an admirable characteristic.”
Wong is looking forward to coming back for Hall of Fame Weekend.
“I would like to just take a walk around the whole campus — a trip down memory lane,” she said.
One sure stop will be the Ken Byers Tennis Center.
“I’ve read about it and seen pictures of it, but I’m looking forward to seeing what it is really like,” she said. “I would have loved to train and play at Byers Tennis Complex. We used to have to take turns to play on the three indoor courts, but now there are six! I hear the locker rooms are much bigger too! Some of us used to sleep in the locker rooms before 6 a.m. practice — this would have been a plus factor for us back then.”
She also can’t wait to speak at the banquet, and, although she’s admittedly a little behind in her speech, she knows the theme.
“I’m sure there will be a theme to it, `As God leads,'” she said.
“It’s an honor — an honor I feel I really don’t deserve,” she added. “I know of others on the Georgia Tech tennis team who had worked way harder than I did, had a better work ethic and attitude towards training, and who were much better role models than I was, had stronger leadership qualities. They were the ones who spurred me on and brought out the best in me. So the award is a reflection of the leadership of Coach Shelton and the strong team spirit of the team I was so blessed to be a part of.”